The Cost of the Academic Job: A Personal Narrative


Photo by Anton Petukhov

A few years ago, a small university invited me on an MLA interview for a tenure-track assistant professor position teaching publishing and creative writing. The hiring committee assumed I would be attending the conference and so told me when and where to be. I had no travel funding for the interview, but it was the only interview I was offered that year. I worried: was one interview enough to justify the expense? But what other options did I have? So I ponied up the money from my savings account and flew for the day to icy Chicago. Rather than spend the extra money and attend the conference, I wandered the morning away at the surgical museum on the waterfront before the afternoon interview. When I arrived at the hotel room, the all-male committee of three met me with practiced hellos and gestured that I sit in a chair at the foot of the bed while the three of them clustered together on the sofa and another chair. Later, a friend confided that she once had an MLA interview in which the committee had her sit on the bed before several men in chairs; the room was so small that her knees were nearly touching one of theirs. My interviewers turned to one another, arms crossed, so that they signaled that they were not ready to begin the interview. They began talking—gossiping?—to one another about something socially esoteric to me: a conversation they had had with a colleague or friend, an allusion to their supper the night before. I sat in my chair, uncomfortably aware that I was not a part of the conversation and that neither my inclusion nor exclusion crossed their minds. Eventually, after a minute or two, I offered that I was ready to begin whenever they were. One of the committee members seemed startled by my verbal nudge, but he greeted the idea warmly enough. Their delivery of the questions seemed largely perfunctory, which caused me to believe that my interview was merely a formality. Had they already found someone they wanted to hire? Did they know before traveling to MLA? I left the interview feeling defeated, as if I had been on exhibition like a Pollock in front of a public who passed by muttering, “Well, I could do that.”  

Still, I had to maintain hope. It was my only in-person interview that season, and my visiting position would run out by the end of the semester. I’d had a tough year balancing my full teaching load with thirty or more job applications, my creative work, and a stint of medical issues and complications, all of which I was trying to resolve before my visiting position’s health insurance ran out. I also felt some urgency in getting my second book finished. Writers, poets especially, with only an MFA and one book seemed to not get any bites. At the end of the season, I tallied the Who Got What list on the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki and saw that only one of the tenure-track poetry positions was taken by someone who didn’t have a Ph.D. It was that job season that caused me to consider applying to creative writing Ph.Ds as well as programs in other disciplines. I didn’t hear back from the job I interviewed for at MLA for weeks, months even, until I finally queried, assuming that they had offered the position to someone else. I received an email back that said that the line had been cancelled and that the university would not be hiring anyone. Continue Reading

“It all started when I began writing through masks”: An Interview with Tomás Q. Morín

tomas q morin copy

Author photo by Erin Evans

Tomás Q. Morín’s first book of poems, A Larger Country, won the APR/Honickman Prize and was runner-up for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. It’s a collection that brings together a series of different times, places and characters (both historical and imagined) into a new world all its own, one that is both recognizable and decidedly strange. Tomás is also the co-editor, with Mari L’Esperance, of the anthology, Coming Close: 40 Essays on Philip Levine, and translator of The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. We caught up recently via email to discuss his work as a poet and translator, and how the two complement and contradict one another.

Matthew Thorburn: How did A Larger Country come together as a book? Would you talk a little about your process?

Tomás Q. Morín: In terms of the strangeness of the individual poems, it all started when I began writing through masks more after my MFA. Ai had been a visiting professor the year I graduated and her work had a huge influence on me in terms of what a poem could be. Suddenly, I felt I could use plot, character, and setting in ways I hadn’t before. Her and Philip Levine’s work exploded what I thought poetry had to look and sound like.

Putting the book together was tough because I didn’t really know what I was doing. Ordering the manuscript for me was about ordering the poems in a way that they spoke to one another and didn’t just sit there alone. Two smart friends read my manuscript and pointed out that the order wasn’t any good. I took their feedback and reworked the order so that all the poems were sitting at the same table enjoying each other’s company. Continue Reading

“Ghosts Usually Accompany Me through My Poems”: An Interview with Diane Seuss

A_big_tip_in_Galveston2Words just seem to have more possibilities in the poems of Diane Seuss. They become more flexible, more magnetic, attracting and accumulating meaning and music in a speedy rush to surprise, a hard-won clarity about what it’s like to be here, be human. Diane is the author of three books of poetry: Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015); Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press, 1998). A native of Michigan, she serves as writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did Four-Legged Girl come together? Would you talk about your process—and was it different from your experience with your previous books?

Diane Seuss: Each collection has been the result of its own unique process. Four-Legged Girl came together after writing poems over a few years that reflected my obsession with the nature of desire. When I looked at those poems I saw a kind of trajectory that was not necessarily chronological but did move through a process of being captivated by desire (a true captive), rescinding desire, and finally coming to a new kind of desire that was not about romance but, frankly, about poetry. In my world, poetry is a placeholder for a larger spiritual and intellectual process. When I wrote the title poem, the image of the girl with four legs was the frame I needed for the freakdom of the whole manuscript. She is the purple creature who rose out of the whole shebang. The big poem in the book’s center, “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” became the drain around which the rest of the poems swirled, and in fact the image of the hub could be considered the collection’s structural metaphor.Continue Reading

What is Your Writing Routine?


What is your writing routine? What does it look like when you sit to write? Any special rituals?

I am so glad you asked. It’s really pretty great. I sit at my computer, and I check Facebook for, like, ten minutes. Okay, haha, twenty minutes. And then I write. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I do research. Once, I bribed myself with M&Ms to get through my edits.

Julia Alvarez keeps a bowl of water on her desk when she writes. Can you tell us about your own writing routine?

Yeah, huh. I’ve been getting this question a lot. I mean, I just… I sit there. And I write. I don’t even listen to music. I mean… Wait, don’t look sad. I’m sorry. Listen, you don’t actually believe that about the water, do you? Next to her computer? Come on! Sorry, wait, I’ll try again. I, um, I’m there at my desk. And I have—wait, this is interesting! I have some postcards on my desk! Of places I like!

Hemingway wrote standing up and claimed to be done by noon and drunk by three. How about your writing routine?

I understand that you want a window into my brain, I get that, or maybe you want some special trick, like something I do before I start writing every day, and if you do that thing too, all your problems will be solved. As if I know what I’m doing. I just… I don’t know what to tell you. A movie of me writing would look like a person sitting at a desk and writing. It’s like, What’s your email routine? You just sit there and answer email, right? Listen, I don’t mean to be cranky, because I’m flattered that you care. I just feel like I’m disappointing you.Continue Reading

“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels

rural-jurorDavid J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that! Continue Reading

People of the Book: Whitney Trettien

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Whitney Trettien, Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, who schemes on a variety of projects related to old books and new media.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Whittney TrettienIn ordinary use, ‘book’ for me means ‘codex,’ a physical form in which a stack of relatively flat material is bound along one edge, and can be opened or closed. It’s a media platform. ‘E-book’, then, is a bit of a misnomer: the electronic tablet is the platform, delivering long-form (that is, “book-length”) content.

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One Year In—Writing the Novel: Celeste Ng

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, forthcoming from Penguin Press in June 2014.

Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng

So, Celeste, I’m at the official “One Year In” point of writing of my first novel, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. 

Yay! And you’re not supposed to be. If there are people who are finished in under a year, I don’t want to hear about them.

I understand it took you six years to write your novel. For lack of a better way to phrase this, and not to sound like your mother but: why did it take you so long? 

The short version: it took me a long time to figure out what I was doing. I wrote four drafts in those six years. I had the general story from the beginning—the favorite daughter goes missing and is found drowned, revealing a web of family secrets—and that stayed consistent throughout. But I had to figure out all of the family’s back story to understand how those secrets came to be. I wrote a lot of pages that never made it into the novel, but they shaped my understanding of the characters and the stories I was telling.

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People of the Book: Stephen Skuce

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Stephen Skuce, Program Manager for Rare Books at the MIT Archives & Special Collections. 

1. How do you define a “book”?

Stephen Skuce sharing a medieval bestiary with students at MIT

Stephen Skuce showing a bestiary to students at MIT

I’m a traditionalist. For me the word “book” conjures up a brilliant piece of technology comprising leaves of paper that usually are imprinted with words or images and meant to be arranged in a particular order. One edge of the paper is typically attached to a binding made of stiffer stuff.

E-books enter the picture if we’re discussing content more than physical form. Of course, you can read a book on a tablet, and there’s no reason not to. But that’s a “book” only in regard to its length and intellectual content. Most of the time when I talk about books my reference is to tangible objects.

2. How do you engage regularly with books, beyond reading?

Stephen Skuce showing a Book of Hours to students at MIT

Stephen Skuce showing a Book of Hours to students at MIT

I’m very lucky: as part of my job, I get to share MIT’s rare books with brilliant, highly engaged students and an astonishing faculty; this is an activity from which I always emerge with new insights. Another learning activity involves book-centered exhibits in our gallery. I monitor the physical condition of the collection and confer with a wonderful conservation staff. I’m also responsible for cataloging the rare book collection, which is more difficult than it sounds. Two copies of a book from the hand-press period may appear to be identical but often are not, and identifying the subtle differences is painstaking work. Then there are the languages: a stack of books on electricity from the 1850s will contain items in French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Dutch.

I’m also a collector—not a serious collector, but an obsessive one. I decided I liked Edith Wharton when I was in my twenties and, though broke, began collecting early editions of her works. She hadn’t been widely rediscovered yet, and I made some lovely finds, along with a few nice editions by other favorite authors, too.  Continue Reading

People of the Book: Cherry Williams

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Cherry Williams, Manuscripts Curator at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Cherry Williams, Manuscripts Curator, Lilly Library

Cherry Williams, Manuscripts Curator, Lilly Library

I define a book as the vehicle or medium which transports ideas, thoughts, information and/or images across time and space. So, my definition of a “book” could include every kind of medium and format from clay tablets to scrolls and rolls, as well as the codex. 

2. How do you engage regularly with books, beyond reading?

I engage with books all day, every day, in the course of my professional practice. As the Curator of Manuscripts, I deal with every kind of manifestation of a book in its becoming and being a finished artifact, from cuneiform tablets, to exquisite medieval codices, to handwritten and typescript drafts of contemporary poetry and literature, to artist’s books. I work with books in many different kinds and forms of physical aggregation and binding, as well as instances of materials which have become a “book” though they were never intended to be—such as elaborately bound collections of correspondence or ephemera. My work includes collection development, by buying new materials to add to the current collections, preparing materials for exhibition or exhibition loans, granting permissions for publications, and working with our conservators on questions of preservation and treatments, as well as teaching classes and providing visitors with hands-on experiences with our materials.

Probably like most of the people who will participate in this interview series, I have read voraciously throughout my life beginning at about age five, when I was told by my mother that I could get up early (around 5 a.m.!) if I sat and read quietly in the living room. My professional life in books, however, began in my first year of graduate school, when one of my instructors suggested that I visit the Special Collections Research Center on campus while seeking out a subject for a research paper proposal. As a result, I discovered medieval Books of Hours and the searching began in earnest. Since that time, in addition to self-directed study, internships, and independent studies, I have taken courses involving rare books, both in the U.S. and abroad, covering a diverse spectrum of topics from paleography to book construction and illustration to descriptive bibliography, as well as teaching graduate-level seminars on the history of the book.Continue Reading

People of the Book: Leah Price

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Leah Price, professor of English at Harvard University and frequent writer on books, old and new media.

1. How do you define a “book”?

Leah Price

Leah Price

Earlier this year, the blogger Adrian Chen claimed that “a book is basically thousands of tweets printed out and stapled together between pieces of cardboard.” To my mind, a book is the opposite of thousands of tweets. It’s a medium with high barrier to entry—it used to be hard to produce one, and it remains hard to distribute one. Yes, most books quickly end up remaindered, and only a tiny fraction of them will ever be reprinted; they’re designed, in principle at least, for the long haul.

IMG_0687That said, “book” has meant different things to different cultures. It sometimes refers to a sequence of words that’s long enough to form a whole, though short enough that it’s not impossible for one person to read the whole thing—and even then, most books are treated more like a buffet in which readers graze for quotable quotes than like a meal whose different courses need to be eaten in sequence and it’s an insult to the chef if you don’t finish everything on your plate.

At other times and places, a book hasn’t referred to a sequence of words but rather to a material object—a roll of a manageable size, for example, or a codex that’s thick enough for its title to be spelled down its spine. This is one reason that UNESCO defined “book” in 1964 as “a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, …made available to the public”; but the redundancy of “publication made available to the public” points to what remains slippery in that definition. Where do you draw the line between publication and internal circulation, for example? And “of” begs questions as well. The early modern Sammelband is a book made of different works bound together by what we would today call the end user—it’s the reader, not the publisher, who assembled those parts into a whole that we’d recognize as a book. So “book” is a term that has fluctuated and been fought over long before e-books began to face off with p-books.

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